1There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews 2who came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘You are a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man; 14and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Edition) alt, used with permission.
Poor Nicodemus gets a bad wrap from so many people. I had to look hard for an image to go with this passage, showing Nicodemus not in full Pharisaic garb but in some form of camouflage, as I believe he would have been when he approached Jesus under cover of darkness. As a leading Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin – the body charged with ruling on religious matters, he could not afford to be seen fraternising with Jesus because to do so openly would most likely have resulted in him being charged with an offence against the Jewish faith, and removed from office. Nicodemus, then, being as discreet as he could and wearing an outfit which would not have identified him, discusses Christ’s work. It is interesting that he opens with “we know”, not “I know”. Was that because other members of the Sanhedrin also acknowledged that Jesus must be from God because of what He was able to achieve? Clearly Nicodemus has noted things which Christ has been doing and rightly attributes them to Jesus being “in the presence of God”, though he doesn’t say that Jesus is God in human form. I don’t want to be too harsh on this discussion because I appreciate that someone who has been brought up to believe that God is omnipotent, out of this world, and definitely not human, and who has been teaching that for some time, will have a problem crossing the divide. Like Thomas, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus is asking questions which will help his faith grow – and grow it did, so much so that Nicodemus later brought a large quantity of embalming ointments and spices to assist Joseph of Arimathea prepare the body of Jesus for burial [John 19:39].
Translations always require interpretation of some critical words, and that can affect how the reader perceives the meaning of a passage. The Greek of verse 3 uses the word ανωθεν (anothen) which has been translated as “from above”, “anew” or “again”. Nicodemus, being the practical person, thinks of being born again as requiring him to re-enter his mother’s womb for a physical re-birth. Non-Christians hearing this passage today are likely to think the same thing, so maybe we need to use another word or phrase to convey the meaning of the Greek text – and that’s what a real translation is all about. If we stick to the strict meaning of a word when we shift from one language to another we are transliterating, and we risk making something sound ridiculous, or misleading.
The teacher speaks again because His student hasn’t got the meaning the first time. This time the reference is to being born of water and the Spirit. In the lead up to a birth we talk about the waters breaking, and we know that our bodies are predominantly water. Here the comparison is between the human birth and the Spiritual birth, when we accept the presence of the Holy Spirit and start listening to God through that Spirit. Many people never get to recognise God’s Spirit within them. There’s an old joke which, like scripture, is told in many contexts according to the listeners, about a professor trying to prove that God doesn’t exist because we can’t see Him, with one student pointing out that the same logic could be used to prove that the professor didn’t have a brain. We can’t prove that the Spirit doesn’t exist, and if we open the door to experience we can encounter that Spirit and listen to it.
Jesus talks of people not knowing where the wind comes from and where it goes to, yet we know it exists. That’s not a good example in the 21st century for a meteorologist like me, but I understand the concept beautifully. When we listen to the Spirit within us we take on tasks which might scare us, or which might require us to do something which can have negative consequences for us, but really positive consequences for the Christian community. We should open our wings and let the Spirit blow us where it wants us to go.
The response to Nicodemus’ question “how can these things be?” is another example of a translation issue. That rendition of this verse, as I’ve included above, comes not from the NRSV, or my favourite reading bible, the REB, because I don’t think either renders it with the incredulity that it deserves. “Nicodemus, you consider yourself a teacher of Israel, and you are respected for being in that role, yet you don’t understand this concept of the Spirit? We need to do some serious work helping you, so that you can help others.” Yes, coach!
The joke comes back to haunt us. In campaigns for the Western Australian State election, which was held on 11th March, we heard much about care for the environment, the use of renewable energy, and financial management, all of which we can’t see, yet are things of this world. Can we expect people who were unable to appreciate an opinion which differed from theirs on such worldly matters, understand us when we expect talk of spiritual matters? We are meaning-making machines and so tend to want to be able to explain things, but language itself limits our ability to describe God, or even just our own experience of God, so we have to accept the mystery of faith.
The grammatical construction “no-one has ascended into heaven except … the Son of Man”, using a past tense, suggests to me that John is saying Jesus had previously ascended into heaven. That is complicated even more by some translations including an extra five words in the Greek on which they are based, and effectively reporting that Jesus was in heaven at the time. That makes for a very awkward reading, given that Jesus was talking to a Pharisee, and well before His crucifixion and resurrection. Do I understand why this verse has been written this way? No, and I’m not convinced by any of the attempts to explain it, though John’s command of the Greek wasn’t always the best.
On the other hand, the reference to Moses is much easier. Jesus was portrayed more than once as being greater than Moses, so the lifting up of the (bronze) serpent on a pole, to bring healing to the people had to be confined to second place at least. Jesus would be lifted up on the cross for the sake of the people, but did Nicodemus get it? Probably not, at that stage. The challenge of thinking about eternal life would have been difficult, yet Nicodemus did believe that Jesus was closer to God than anyone else he had met, and the seeds of faith growth had been set.
For Christians, brought up with the idea that God is love, it is not difficult to understand that God loved the world that He had created so much that He sent His son to help people back on the way to be in communion with Him. The vigneron sent his servants to collect the rent that was due, but the tenants didn’t listen to them, and killed them – just like God sending His prophets and the religious hierarchy ignoring them at their peril, and making life difficult for those prophets. We might remember the vigneron sending his own son to redeem the situation and liken it to God sending His son in the hope that people would listen. Christ had already forecast his crucifixion with reference to the serpent, but the reference to the son also being killed can’t be missed. Everyone, without exception, who believes that Jesus is Lord and Son of God will have eternal life, so when our mortal bodies can no longer sustain us we know that we will be cared for. It is the person within the body who is important to God, and should be important to us, though we tend to look at the body and judge people based on that.
Some Christians have given others a bad name because of what came to be known as “bible bashing,” where texts would be quoted, often in judgement against others. When we read verse 17 properly it’s clear that Jesus did not come to judge us, and condemn us for our sins, but to offer a way of reconciliation with God, and a way for forgiveness. We, too, can forgive others for their mistreatment of us, in whatever form and however bad, if we separate the sin from the sinner, as God does. I know from personal experience how freeing that can be, especially if God is given the chance to make something good out of a bad situation.